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Britain's floating refugee prison shows how low the Tories have taken us

The hallmark of Conservative refugee policy is a vicious performative disregard for humanity, intended to distract voters from the chaos Britain is in after 13 years of Tory rule
People carrying bags enter the Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge, moored at Portland, Dorset, south-west England, on 7 August 2023 (AFP)
People board the Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge, moored at Portland, Dorset, 7 August 2023 (AFP)

The British government has given up on governing. Some government agencies and civil servants may still be trying to get on with the basic administration of the country, but evidence of that is scant.

More clear is that the nation's most senior politicians are more interested in petty partisan point-scoring than they are in trying to make this country a decent place in which to live.

In fairness, this may not seem like the greatest revelation. Politicians are always going to be largely motivated by self-interest and party loyalty. But what seems new is that there appears to be not even the thinnest veneer of decency, not even the most modest fig-leaf of public service to mask the naked sloganeering which has replaced governance.

Whatever once passed for the Conservative agenda - fiscal responsibility, small government, free markets - has been wilfully discarded like the raw sewage pumped out into our rivers and seas (thanks to 292 Conservative MPs voting to allow sewage dumping for another 15 years).

The Conservative government's agenda now consists purely of identifying wedge issues - ideas which drive a stake through society and force voters to take one side or another with little room for nuance - in a phoney culture war designed to deepen the divisions that have become so entrenched in Brexit Britain.

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The UK's asylum policy is just one result of this toxic political culture; its victims are trapped, holed up in overcrowded former hotels in marginal constituencies, or stuck on a poisonous prison barge.

And the worst thing is that such policies are not designed to solve any problem. The whole government endeavour is simply performative cruelty. The Conservatives are showing off just how much they hate foreigners, the young, the poor, the vulnerable.

Seeds of fear

Immigration minister Robert Jenrick (a former UK representative at Jared Kushner's ill-fated "Israel-Palestine Peace Initiative") this month all but admitted that the UK's asylum claims backlog had been manufactured with the deliberate intent of discouraging further applications.

The warehousing of asylum seekers costs the UK taxpayer £6bn a year, and we now know that this is a deliberate political choice.

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It was also revealed that the painting over of Disney-character murals for children at an asylum centre in Kent - ordered by Jenrick reportedly to create more of a "law enforcement environment" - cost the Home Office more than £1,500, which will no doubt be cynically taken from the foreign aid budget.

Nothing about the UK asylum policy is rooted in human dignity. Nothing about the UK asylum policy is designed to help alleviate suffering. It's not even an attempt to save money.

It's all about trying to sow the seeds of fear. "The other" is coming. Coming to take your jobs. Coming to take your lifestyle. Coming to take your daughters.

The plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is nothing new. Back in 2020, then-Home Secretary Priti Patel was exploring the possibility of sending those seeking a better life in the UK to Ascension Island in the southern Pacific Ocean. Moldova, Morocco and even Papua New Guinea were also destinations considered.

Then they hit upon the idea of disused ferries. And so began the saga of the Bibby Stockholm.

'Recipe for disaster'

The Barbados-flagged engineless barge, built in the 1970s, has been used for accommodation on and off since the early 1990s. It has 222 rooms - mostly 12ft by 12ft - across three storeys, and is the latest flagship of UK asylum policy.

The UK government planned to house more than 500 asylum seekers on the football pitch-sized boat, moored at Portland in Dorset. Residents - who started being transferred to the vessel in early August - would be free to leave, we were told, but it turns out that there are only very specific times when there is a bus available to drive inmates a long distance to somewhere they can walk, one Afghan asylum seeker told BBC News.

The drop-off points are determined by the government. And rural Dorset is not exactly close to many urban centres of support or solidarity for international communities.

Asylum seekers' entry and exit from the boat are tightly controlled by the authorities; the vessel itself is in a high-security area of the port, cordoned off behind fences and under significant surveillance.

Asylum seekers in the UK do not have the right to work. Those aboard the Bibby Stockholm will receive an allowance of £9.50 a week.

The Fire Brigades Union warned that forcibly holding migrants on the barge was a huge health and safety risk

Right-wing tabloids have extolled the boat's palatial conditions, though former residents who stayed aboard when the ship housed construction workers in the Shetland Islands have said conditions on the Bibby Stockholm are "a recipe for disaster".

There have already been reports of inadequate safety equipment and serious concerns raised about the ability to evacuate through narrow corridors if needed, as well as access to fire exits. The Fire Brigades Union warned that forcibly holding migrants on the barge was a huge health and safety risk.

"It remains our professional view that it's a potential death trap," the union said in a statement.

Morally indefensible spitefulness

Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden dismissed the firefighters' concerns as politically motivated, saying the union had donated money to the opposition Labour party.

And there remains the fact that taking people who have endured traumatic and harrowing sea journeys in overcrowded boats with limited safety equipment and placing them on an overcrowded boat with limited safety equipment really is quite its own brand of morally indefensible spitefulness, and likely to re-traumatise many.

As if the racist criminalisation of vulnerable people wasn't enough, Dorset Police have reportedly had to receive extra training and resources to deal with the threat of far-right groups attacking the boat and its residents.

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And then what happened? There was a Legionella outbreak, and all those on board had to be evacuated. Of course, the government didn't manage to tell everyone on board, leaving it to humanitarian charities to contact those stranded after the initial departures. The Conservatives aren't even competent in their cruelty.

This idea of treating human beings as objects in storage is a shameful play to the gallery. It won't even fix the problem. There are tens of thousands of asylum seekers stuck in the purgatory of the government's (entirely manufactured) processing backlog.

The Bibby Stockholm is just a huge physical demonstration of the Tories' hate for refugees, and by extension, all of us.

Asked about asylum seekers being reluctant to board the barge, Lee Anderson said they should "f*** off back to France". Anderson is not a senior figure in the National Front, nor the English Defence League. He's the deputy chairman of the Conservative party.

This normalisation of far-right rhetoric is dangerous and terrifying to those of us seeking serious solutions to serious problems.

Stoking fear

It would be much less costly, not to mention more humane, to simply invest in processing asylum claims, to open an immigration office in France, or to open a single legal route for refugees to arrive in Britain. But that wouldn't generate any rabid front pages. That wouldn't turn ruddy-faced middle-aged men purple on TV. That wouldn't stoke the fear upon which the right-wing thrives.

This vicious disregard for humanity, the hallmark of contemporary Conservatism, is intended to distract voters from the absolute disaster Britain has become after 13 years of the Conservatives in power. It cannot be allowed to work - if such violence really does win votes, what does that say about us as a nation?

This vicious disregard for humanity is intended to distract voters from the absolute disaster Britain has become after 13 years of the Conservatives in power. It cannot be allowed to work

UN chief Antonio Guterres put it best. "While we are all floating on the same sea," he said in 2020, "it's clear that some are in superyachts, while others are clinging to the drifting debris".

The UK government has leased the Bibby Stockholm for at least 18 months. A better use for it would be to float it up the River Thames and park it outside the Houses of Parliament.

Any MP from a far-flung constituency who thinks it is suitable accommodation would then be able to make use of it as a London home, thus freeing up millions of pounds in expense claims - which could then be used to fund the processing of the asylum backlog.

On the morning of 12 August, another boat carrying asylum seekers sank in the English Channel. Dozens were rescued by lifeboat volunteers, but at least six Afghan men fleeing the Taliban were lost to watery graves.

Despite the government's hand-wringing in the hours after the news broke, just 22 people have been brought to the UK under its Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.

If there were a safe route for asylum seekers to enter the UK, these six men would still be alive. Their blood is on the hands of Tory hatemongers.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye. 

James Brownsell was formerly managing editor of The New Arab and Europe editor at Al Jazeera English. He spent several years living and working in the occupied Palestinian territories and Qatar, and has reported from at least half a dozen other places. Follow him on Twitter: @JamesBrownsell
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